World War II caused three major economic disruptions in Europe. The military commandeered a large part of the active workforce, governments redirected social spend to the war effort, and aerial bombing devastated many urban areas. The surviving soldiers returned to a society they hardly knew.
The situation was different for military returning to the U.S. where the war economy had blossomed. Two hundred billion in war bonds matured, financing the ‘golden era’ of American capitalism. Soldiers returning to Australia, Canada, and South Africa found things much as they had left them, except someone else had taken their jobs while their own careers marked time.
Throughout the west, the population boomed as young couples tried to put the worst behind them and usher in a new era of hope. The baby boom continued until 1969, when the Bretton Woods monetary system collapsed, and once again, the economy staggered.
My Dad had served in the South African navy, while my mother nursed wounded soldiers returning home via Cape Town. We were lucky. My grandparents had money to buy us a house. But, we always had a fruit orchard, and a vegetable garden we watered from a rainwater tank. If I had a colour film for my box camera, I might have taken a picture like this.
I recall life being simple. I walked several miles to school. If it rained, I got wet. We seldom went on holiday, and we never went out to a restaurant. Things were much worse in Europe and I can only begin to imagine how they suffered. When we visited friends, we always took something from the garden. If a neighbour was ill, we took them food.
Our home was simple compared to what I see today. I had a bed, and a desk to do my homework. The furniture was plain and simple throughout the house. We had a radio that worked with valves.
Television was something we read about in newspapers that arrived once a month in ships. I was sixteen years old when my father bought our first gramophone, and it was a wonderful thing.
Young people find it impossible to believe I survived without a smartphone, a computer, or the internet. We did not even have printed circuit boards. Transistor radios were the height of chic.
In Europe, ordinary people were discovering double-glazing, although this was still a luxury many did without.
There were no supermarkets where I lived. We bought meat from the butcher, bread from the baker, and vegetables and fruit from the ‘greengrocer’. During school holidays, I went shopping with my mother. The small speciality shops were where housewives met, while their kids played ballgames in the street. Most homes housed three generations: A single grandparent, the parents, and the children.
In the 1960’s, the West entered a ‘golden age of prosperity’ lasting until 1971. The early signs of people wanting more were everywhere. Boeing gave us jet air travel, and Detroit produced motorcars that looked like fighter jets. The money was flowing. My father took us on holiday, and he imported a motor car (although not as fancy as this one). We had entered the age of materialism.
The expectation arose that we should have more of everything. Better paid jobs, bigger houses with two bathrooms, and supermarkets where we could buy everything we wanted in one place. Our lust for non-renewables became insatiable. Air pollution was a sign of progress. We might have behaved differently if we had known the dangers, but we were unaware.
I am going to step back into my ‘time machine’ and fast forward to the present day. Through my reconsidered lens, I see a strangely introverted society. People no longer look at each other as they dash about their work. They glue their ears to mobile devices. They are self-sufficient in their computers, where they get information from machines and not from people. Outside, their planet is suffocating. People are starving by the millions.
I do not have a huge interest in other people either – perhaps I never did, I always was a loner. I have only one real friend with whom I share my life. The extended families where three generations lived together are gone, and with it the transfer of wisdom between people. Neighbours no longer stop and greet. It is if we are strangers. I no longer know what is happening in their minds.
Although I might not know my neighbours, with the internet you are never short of a group of like minded people and with this unlimited burst of information at our finger tips, knowledge is spreading far and wide and it is making a positive impact. In the last ten years, farmers markets are blossoming and have moved from a niche to more mainstream….. maybe life is more like the late 70s’ and early 80’s (than ten years ago) but with so much more usage in a sustainable way.
We had lost our way in the cities, but there is still hope. There is a way back through a greater sense of community, in which we share. Mahatma Gandhi said, ‘The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.’ I may live in my computer, but it gives me access to projects like the Promenade Plantée in Paris, and the greening of the old New York City elevated train line.
Nearer home for me in Durban, I discover the more affordable Green Camp Gallery Project, where a young couple are turning an abandoned building into a seedling nursery. They want to create a network of urban farms throughout the city. Their vision is for single mums to work the gardens while they provide day care to their children at a central point. We need these things desperately. We have so many people without work, without even sufficient food.